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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 17:43 GMT 18:43 UK
Profile: General Rashid Dostum
General Rashid Dostum at the height of his power in 1997
A nationalist whose biggest support comes from Afghan Uzbeks
General Abdul Rashid Dostum, leader of Afghanistan's minority Uzbek community, is a controversial figure who has often changed sides in Afghanistan's complex web of shifting alliances.

The forces he commanded in Kabul in the mid-1990s were accused of atrocities against civilians and extensively looted the capital.

The leader of the second largest party in the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance, General Dostum directed the campaign to recapture the Mazar-e-Sharif - the town he once ruled.

The recapture marked an extraordinary comeback for General Dostum - a man whose career has seemed in ruins on several occasions.

His ability to bounce back can be attributed partly to a willingness to switch sides.

Pro-Soviet commander

In the years of Soviet domination, he transformed himself from Communist union boss working on a gas field to the leader of an Uzbek militia fighting on the Soviet side.

By the mid-1980s, he was in command of a 20,000-strong militia controlling the northern provinces of Afghanistan.

He went on to join the government of President Najibullah against the mujahedeen forces who were fighting to end Soviet domination and was awarded a medal for his services.

Retreat to the north

But towards the end of Najibullah's rule in early 1992, he saw the writing on the wall and changed sides to fight with the mujahedeen.

He briefly joined the mujahideen government of Burhanuddin Rabbani before defecting again, even briefly forming an alliance with the Islamist forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Former President Najibullah
Dostum sided with Najibullah until his defeat was imminent

General Rashid then retreated to his power base in the north, consolidating his hold on an area which covered six provinces with a population of around five million.

At the height of his power in 1997 - then aged 43 - he controlled a kind of mini-state in northern Afghanistan.

Leadership ambitions

While much of the rest of Afghanistan was in ruins, his stronghold of Mazar-e-Sharif - a city of around two million people - was thriving.

General Dostum grew rich, but his rule was harsh. He is reported to have frequently ordered public executions of criminals, who were usually crushed to death under tanks.

His followers gave him the title of Pasha - a title used by some of the region's ancient kings and some thought he had ambitions to emerge as the new ruler of Afghanistan - a position that has eluded the Uzbeks for 500 years.

One diplomat said he regarded himself as a new Tamerlane, the Uzbek horseman who conquered Afghanistan in the 14th century and started an empire that stretched from Baghdad to the western frontier of China.

But in 1998, the dream turned sour and the Taleban forced him to flee to Turkey.

Massoud alliance

General Dostum returned to Afghanistan earlier this year, and reached a compromise agreement with former rival Ahmed Shah Massoud to fight jointly against the Taleban.

A Northern Alliance fighter in Takhar province
Northern Alliance forces are beginning to scent victory
After Commander Massoud was killed by suicide bombers two days before the 11 September attacks on the United States, one of his aides, General Fahim, was appointed as the military leader of the anti-Taleban forces.

General Dostum said he accepted that appointment and would follow instructions from the government-in-exile of President Rabbani.

But he appears to be leading the battle on the ground and, given his past record, cannot be ruled out as a future leadership contender.

See also:

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